Touch of Brazil in New Zealand sheep farming
Eight years ago, a young Brazilian woman with no farming background decided she wanted to work on a New Zealand sheep farm. Now she’s doing a master’s degree in sheep genetics. Kate Taylor finds out her story.
Brazilian Dayanne Almeida made 21 presentations to 2600 people in a six-week tour of her home country last year. Her topic: Sheep farming in New Zealand.
The 33-year-old seems to be always laughing and smiling and her New Zealand-English accent dotted with Kiwi slang seems at odds with her effervescent Brazilian personality. She's happy to be working on New Zealand sheep farms and loves the opportunity to tell the story of how she came to be here. It's a story of perseverance and determination that took several years and about 500 emails.
With limited English and not many skills suitable for New Zealand farm conditions, Almeida immersed herself into farm life and a one-month agreement turned into eight years living and contributing to the sheep industry in this country.
She started as a farm hand at One Stop Ram Shop at Takapau in Central Hawke's Bay in 2009 and worked her way up to assistant manager. For the past three years, she has been research and development manager for Wairere Rams at Bideford in Wairarapa as well as studying sheep genetics at Massey University as part of her master's degree.
It wasn't a simple journey – just getting to New Zealand in the first place was a big hurdle.
Almeida had been planning to work in Brazil after finishing her animal science degree at university. In 2008, while looking for internship placements, a friend in the UK suggested she travel overseas.
"It didn't even cross my mind but a few weeks later the thought was still there. When you work with sheep, you are aware of New Zealand and Australia. I knew Australia was big and hot. I thought I would see more of New Zealand in a shorter term so I typed 'sheep breeders of New Zealand' or something like that into Google and started writing down email addresses. Facebook wasn't that big then. It would have made the search a little easier," she says, laughing.
While still at university, she paid for her CV and letters of recommendation to be translated into English and started emailing.
"I thought once I was there I would worry about the fact I couldn't speak English."
She sent 20 or 30 emails at a time, changing the name of the people and farm each time. With no replies, she repeated the process almost a dozen times.
"Every time I pushed send I would plead 'please, please, please'. The next night I would send some more."
She was offered a job with the Dorper Breed Association in Brazil after graduation and stopped emailing… for a while.
"Something inside me was still thinking, 'What if?' I was reading about New Zealand every day, everything I could find on Google or from people who had been to New Zealand. More and more people started saying, 'Just go, you can do this'. So I started sending emails again. Then I got the one reply I had been waiting for."
Central Hawke's Bay ram breeders Robin Hilson and Joy Gray are well known in sheep circles for hosting wwooffers (which stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, though they are essentially people who work for short-term periods in return for board). They said Almeida could stay with them for a month.
"Everything suddenly clicked. I thought, 'Oh gosh, this is true. This is happening. I am living this now'. This whole thing I have been dreaming of. It was a shock in the first place but then you realise you have one month to make this the best experience of your life. I have to do as much as I can and learn as much as I can, as fast as I can."
When her month was over, they asked if she wanted to stay.
"I had arrived in April, so not much was happening. I missed the mating in March. They said it would be good for me to see a lambing in August. All I wanted to do was show them I was useful. But I still couldn't speak much English. I had to have my dictionary with me all the time. It's hard to get quick translations for the words 'paddock' and 'hogget'. I was given some old video cassette tapes about farming stuff."
She also used to watch Disney movies with the captions in English. "I already knew the stories and they were basic because they were made for children," she says, laughing.
A highlight from her time at Takapau was working closely with manager and mentor Colin Burlace, who gave her one of his old heading dogs to work with initially, then a heading dog pup, Day.
"He said he named it after me so he would remember me after I left. But I didn't leave for five years and when I did, the dog came with me."
She now has heading dogs Day and Millie and huntaway Pearl.
As well as Day, her favourite memento so far is the greenstone whistle given to her by Burlace.
"Robin and Joy gave me the chance to come to New Zealand but it was Colin who mentored me during all those years. He taught me pretty much everything from driving tractors, feeding out, right to training my dogs and doing lambing beats.
"My whole time at One Stop Ram Shop was a great learning curve. It was interesting and scary at the same time when they started being able to leave me alone to run a block."
She was also doing paperwork for Hilson, including the layout of his newsletters and helping to organise information for SIL sire-ranking lists.
"Plus working on a stud farm meant I met a lot of people."
Almeida went home for a visit in 2011 and started telling people what she was doing in New Zealand. She took Hilson to Brazil in 2012 and he made three presentations at universities, which led to other speaking engagements for Almeida herself.
"I started telling people then how things work here. I didn't want to compare because the two places are too different, two different worlds, but to tell them the concepts. It's more from less. It's being efficient. It's breeding resilient sheep. It's all these principles of farming that you can apply anywhere in the world depending on your environment. But at the end of the day you want to make more from less."
In 2013, she started a consultancy business with some friends in Brazil, where sheep farming is more about showing than production.
"Genetics and recording EBVs are non-existent. The whole industry there is more of a hobby than actually a proper business. But Brazil has amazing potential. It is a huge country with easy, easy land. It is way less exposed. The environment doesn't change drastically – it doesn't go from very dry season to very wet season," she says, with strong emphasis on each 'very'.
"The potential there is huge – we just don't know how to do it. I started telling people about it and to my surprise, they wanted to hear it. They wanted me to talk to them."
Every year she travels back to her home country to speak for free to thousands of students, technicians, professors and farmers about her job and her journey. Considering the historical social problems faced at home, Almeida says she finds it rewarding to show the younger generation, especially the young women in her country, that where they come from does not pre-determine who they can be.
"I feel honoured to be part of this industry, the industry that feeds the hungry. I feel proud of who I have become. I feel happy to motivate and inspire more young women to follow their dreams."
In May 2013 Almeida took two discussion groups on a tour of Brazil. Derek and Chris Daniell from Wairere Rams were in that group.
A couple of months later, she made the move to Wairere. The change also gave her the prompt she needed for her thesis topic, which will revolve around using body condition scoring as a way to measure efficiency.
Wairere's hill country flock has been performance-recorded since John Daniell selected the best Wairere five-year-old ewes and mated them to several top Akoura rams in 1967. Derek Daniell took over as studmaster in 1983.
"Since Wairere has gone digital with EID and automated drafting it's quicker to collect raw data," Almeida says.
"We weigh every ewe at weaning, body condition score at different times and look at how that condition impacts on a series of traits such as total weight of lambs weaned.
"With all sheep at Wairere being mob-stocked and rotationally grazed throughout the year, apart from lambing time, Wairere is a rigorous testing ground, ensuring they have great shifting ability and a reputation for being able to recover condition rapidly after tough seasons. My work now is to put that in figures to allow further selection and, therefore, add value."
Wairere is 1070ha (effective) of medium to steep hill country rising to 532 metres above sea level. The climate is typically winter-wet, summer-dry and a Class I wind zone (average year-round wind speed of 35kmh on the high ridges). Rainfall is 1125mm average, but the six months from November to April average around 400mm. The overall stocking rate is 11-12 stock units a hectare with around 10,000 sheep and 300 cows.
Coinciding with Almeida's arrival at Wairere was the growth in the popularity of Facebook and the usability of smart phones.
"I post live videos under the name sheepnutter. I had more people following my posts, a lot of strangers, and I started only writing about sheep. It's a blog about sheep mostly related to my work in New Zealand."
The sheepnutter page has more than 17,000 followers. One of Almeida's videos of ewes going through a gateway at the yards has had half a million views and created one of those small world moments. Derek Daniell was travelling in Turkey when a taxi driver commented on the Wairere written on his hat and told him he had watched videos of the farm on Facebook.
Almeida took Daniell to Brazil in April.
The main thing taking up Almeida's time this spring is not lambs but her new baby daughter Isabella with partner Paul Crick, who is director of farms at Taratahi.